Preface to volume 12 of the General Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte

Author(s) : REY Marie-Pierre
Share it

Marie-Pierre Rey’s preface, the French original of which features in volume 12 of the General Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte, was published on in April 2012 to coincide with the book’s release. Serving as introduction to the volume, it sets out some of the key issues raised by the correspondence during the year of 1812 and the Russian campaign.


The Russian campaign dominates the year of 1812. Indeed this crucial episode in the Napoleonic saga foreshadowed a reversal in the empire’s fortunes which would lead to the regime’s eventual collapse.

When Napoleon – at the head of an army considered by many to be invincible – crossed the Niemen in June 1812 and invaded the territory belonging to his “brother” Alexander I, most predicted a lightning campaign marked by the sort of decisive victories which had become the speciality of the Emperor of the French. Napoleon’s military genius was seen by many as vastly superior to Alexander’s self-declared “ordinariness”, and with an antiquated Russian army squaring up to the highly organised Grande Armée and its advanced technology, few envisaged anything other than a Russian defeat. Yet, less than six months later, after a campaign that had proved devastating in both human and material terms, the vanquished eagle returned across the Niemen to France with sixty-thousand troops trailing in its wake. The Russian bear had faced up to the invader and held fast. “Napoleon arrived like a tiger, but bolted like a rabbit,” gloated the famous Russian historian and writer Nicolas Karamzine.

Napoleon never got over this campaign, and he would subsequently find himself stripped of his empire, his rule and his freedom. Alexander I, lionised after the “patriotic war of 1812”, led the victorious coalition forces into Paris in March 1814. Russia’s increasing influence saw her dominate the Congress of Vienna, which set new boundaries for Europe that would last a hundred years. Such was the importance of the clash of 1812.

Many of those who participated in or witnessed the campaign of 1812 left for posterity their own thoughts, memoirs, and opinions on this terrible year and its extraordinary military operation. Yet Napoleon, for his part, chose to remain quiet. Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène offered little on the Russian campaign, except to say that the defeat was not the result of the “efforts of the Russians” but rather “complete accidents”, “a capital burned to the ground by foreign parties before the eyes of its inhabitants”, “a freezing winter the sudden arrival and intensity of which was nothing less than phenomenal”, and finally “false reports, ridiculous plots, betrayal and pure stupidity”. The emperor acknowledged only one weakness:

“I did not wish for this famous war, this audacious undertaking. I had no urge to fight. Nor did Alexander, yet once we were face to face, circumstance drove us against each other. Fate did the rest.”

Yet in June 1812, it was not fate but the emperor’s wishes that saw – after more than a year of preparation – nearly 440,000 men lined up along the banks of the Niemen, ready to invade the Russian empire and bring it to heel. How was this military operation – by all accounts highly organised – so comprehensively defeated by Russian resistance? As the problems mounted up and heaped more and more uncertainty on the outcome of the campaign, what were Napoleon’s thoughts on what would become of him and his men? The correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte for the year 1812 can offer precious insight – if not fully-formed answers – to these key questions. The 2,551 letters found in this volume are of inestimable value to historians who seek not only to investigate the preparation that went into the operation and the logistical complexity of the Grande Armée, but also analyse the emperor’s psychology, his reactions, and his behaviour when faced with the challenges and reversals of the campaign.

This short preface is not the place to discuss all the themes addressed in these letters. The mind of Napoleon reveals itself here to be just as brilliant, nimble, synthetic and incessant as it has been in previous editions. He once again demonstrates his ability to address with the same acuity and measure multiple subjects at once, ranging from matters of the highest importance – such as the wars in Russia and Spain – to those of lesser – one might cite here his comments on Laplace’s Traité des probabilités published that year – or even incidental concern. Into this latter category fall the changes he makes to the list of ladies presented to the court, or his ill-tempered remarks concerning the lamentably poor menus offered at the Ecole de cavalerie de Saint-Germain. Even when caught up in the middle of the Russian campaign, with the war raging about him and reversals in fortune starting to tell, Napoleon continues to govern, manage, and administer his empire. Second opinions are seldom solicited. He alone is responsible for any decision there is to be made, be it of the utmost importance or of utter insignificance. He delegates rarely. He alone is the master of his own destiny, just as he is ruler of his empire. Such a character cannot fail to fascinate the reader. Unable as I am to address every subject discussed in this volume, I have chosen instead to consider three issues: campaign preparations, the nature of the Grande Armée and the difficulties it faced during the conflict, and Napoleon’s psychological state in the face of his ordeals.

The war preparations which came to dominate the first six months of his correspondence1 offer the perfect demonstration of Napoleon’s organisational genius. Over the course of this period, Napoleon worked tirelessly to coordinate the twelve corps that made up his Grande Armée. Their numbers were meticulously organised, their equipment stipulated to the minutest degree. Food reserves and quantities of clothing were determined by Napoleon himself. Troop movements and departure dates were announced, and marching routes assigned. Nothing escaped him, and he took it upon himself to ensure that his men are ready for the upcoming conflict.

In terms of food reserves, a strict rule was established: up until the Niemen, his troops were expected to live off “the surrounding country’s resources”. Napoleon explains his thinking in a letter to Berthier dated 26 March (n° 30,301): “the consumption of these supplies must not begin until after the crossing of the Niemen.” Insofar as “clothing” was concerned, Napoleon’s description is enlightening: on 13 July, whilst still in Vilnius, the French emperor wrote to Berthier requesting “50,000 shoes, 6,000 overcoats, 6,000 coats, 6,000 jackets, 6,000 pairs of trousers”. Yet nowhere in this list is there any mention of any sort of warm clothing designed to help his troops withstand the rigours of the Russian winter. In the emperor’s opinion – as he explained to Marie-Louise on 1 June – the war “will be over in three months”. There was no doubt in his mind that the imminent conflict would be quick and easy. At this point, Napoleon’s fatal flaw was overweening self-confidence, much like Alexander I on the eve of the Battle of Austerlitz.

Yet at the same time, and in spite of the meticulous organisation that Napoleon put into these immense preparations, irritating delays and frustrating mistakes were creeping in: in Thorn on 4 June, he wrote to Berthier, unable to understand “why his military transports that were in Bromberg have not yet arrived in Thorn. Their orders were to arrive on 1 June.” The next morning, further enraged, he wrote again:

“Mon cousin, inform Rapp that I have learnt that 10,000 quintals of grain have been dispatched from Danzig. I gave no such order: it is flour that should have been sent. Nowhere are they struggling for grain.”

Before the outbreak of hostilities, we learn of numerous incidents that delay the launch of this colossal, precisely assembled, war machine.

Napoleon’s diplomatic and military alliances, coupled with commitments imposed on vassal states under his rule, allowed him to institute a system of conscription and subsequently raise a multinational army. This force was made up of soldiers from France (in its pre-imperial form), conscripts raised in départements attached to France post-1805, and foreign contingents supplied by the emperor’s allies. Italy sent 27,000 men whilst Naples, Austria and Bavaria each supplied 30,000. Prussia dispatched 29,000, Saxony 20,000, Westphalia 25,000, Wurtemberg 12,000, and Baden 8,000. The remaining states of the Confederation of the Rhine contributed 20,000, and the Duchy of Warsaw 50,000. To these were added several thousand Spanish, Portuguese and Swiss troops. This multinational force – combining as it did men from twenty different nations – met with numerous difficulties, and Napoleon was moved on more than one occasion to deplore their dysfunctions. As early as 4 June, in a letter written whilst still in Thorn, the emperor criticised the poor behaviour of his Westphalian troops, who – contrary to his orders – had been “ravaging the country” and sowing “terror and desolation” in Poland. A few weeks later, in July,2 he wrote to Wilhelm, the Prince Royal of Wurtemberg, to complain of “officers engaging in the most unfavourable talk” and expressing “unfavourable sentiments”. Wilhelm subsequently received instructions to clamp down on any soldiers unwilling or reluctant to participate in the war with Russia. Napoleon proved equally severe towards the Polish troops, upbraiding them for their lack of aggression and for their unfounded (in his opinion) complaints that had been transmitted on their behalf by Prince Poniatowski. On 9 July, whilst in Vilnius, he noted with displeasure that the prince “spoke of pay and of bread when pursuit of the enemy was what mattered”, and admitted disappointedly that “the Polish [troops] were decidedly poor soldiers” rather lacking in “the necessary spirit to cope with such privations”.

The lack of troop cohesion and their tendency to “grumble” were aggravated by the difficulties they faced, difficulties that the emperor himself, having initially denied outright, was moved to lament. As the weeks went by, the difficulties experienced in provisioning and supplying his army were put down not to the men’s reluctance but rather their sheer incompetence. On 2 July, whilst complaining to Berthier that the construction of ovens had not yet begun through lack of horse transport for the necessary bricks, he wrote that “it was necessary that, for an operation as important as the construction of ovens, workhorses be used,” before concluding angrily “but the general staff is organised in such a way that nothing has been planned.”

The consequences of such disorder were not long in coming: the lack of food and fodder for the horses forced the foraging soldiers to stray further and further from their units, and to take risks in their search for supplies. As a result, many were lost, victims of ambush and Cossack attacks. On 3 September, Napoleon – then in Gzhatsk – lamented this terrible haemorrhaging of men, and wrote to Berthier with his solution:

“Mon cousin, write to the respective commanding officers of the army corps: we continue to lose many men every day due to the lack of order in the way in which supplies are obtained. It is urgent that they work with the different corps officers and agree on the measures to take in order to bring an end to this current state of affairs that threatens to bring destruction upon the army. Every day the number of prisoners being taken by the enemy is in the many hundreds. […] Finally, you will inform the Duc d’Elchingen that he is losing more men every day than he would do if battle was given.”

As well as these logistical difficulties, there were also problems brought about by a lack of political and material support offered by the structures that Napoleon himself had installed in the occupied zones. The emperor initially placed a great deal of hope in the provisional Lithuanian government, but, as is evident from his letter from Smolensk on 22 August, the results failed to live up to such high expectations:

“Mon cousin, inform Baron Bignon that the end result is that the government does very little and that there is no organisational improvement. The administration has few resources and, ultimately, the country is of absolutely no use to me. I find these disagreements with the government ridiculous: it is expected to be in my service.”

Later, Napoleon’s tone became more bitter and extreme. On 3 December he declared to Maret:

“I was poorly supported by Lithuania and the Duchy of Warsaw – indeed I received no support whatsoever, neither from the government nor from the country.”

As the weeks went by and the difficulties accumulated, the Russian resistance grew stronger. Mid-October, it forced the Grande Armée into a retreat that no-one dared acknowledge. How did Napoleon react upon finding himself in such an unusual position? Did he quickly realise that the situation was slipping out of his grasp, that the Russians were intent on withdrawing in order to avoid the decisive battle that he so desired? Or, on the contrary, was he slow to cotton on to what was happening? And what does his correspondence reveal about his reactions and his state of mind?

The collection of letters that we have at our disposition provides testament to an enduring sense of, if not optimism then certainly a desire to remain optimistic in the face of each hardship. Over the course of numerous letters, Napoleon exudes confidence. He is sure of victory over the Russians and continuously underestimates both their military capabilities and their troop strength. In his eyes, Borodino was a close-run thing: he emphasises Russian losses, and ensures that his own are downplayed, even ignored in some cases. Writing to Marie-Louise on 8 September, he notes that “their losses could be estimated at 30,000 men”, without bothering to evaluate his own. The next morning, in a letter to Maret, he remarked with surprising enthusiasm: “Russian losses at the Moskova are huge. It is the most beautiful battlefield I have seen thus far: there are 2,000 French and 12,000 Russian, and that is no exaggeration” (a ratio of one to six). Today these losses are estimated at 25,000 to 28,000 men for the Grande Armée, and about 45,000 on the Russian side. It is clear that the loss ratio (one to two at the very most) was far less favourable to Napoleon’s army than was initially suggested by the emperor, who appeared to be unmoved by the carnage of what was to turn out to be the bloodiest battle of the campaign.

The emperor, who remained resolutely optimistic regarding his ultimate victory, was slow to realise that the war had quickly turned from one involving two opposing armies to one that saw an entire people rise up against the invader: it soon became clear that the people, in unison with their sovereign and army, were prepared to go to the most extreme ends to defeat the intruder. Napoleon, unprepared for methods he considered to be incompatible with the waging of an “honourable” war, was surprised to learn of German-language pamphlets, distributed by the Russian General Staff, which encouraged members of the Grande Armée to desert. He failed to understand that as far as the Russians were concerned – both military and civilian – the stakes were such that anything, even the most reprehensible acts, could and would be permitted. His attempts to exploit hostile sentiment amongst the serfs towards their landowners – as his letter to Eugene on 5 August, in which he asks him to “tell [me] what sort of decree or proclamation we could make to incite revolt amongst the serfs of Russia and rally them to our cause”, demonstrates – was quickly abandoned in the face of a virulent popular patriotism, the extent of which was patently underestimated by the emperor. The ultimate sacrifice to the cause came with the burning of Moscow, a city that Napoleon described in a letter to Marie-Lousie as having “500 palaces as beautiful as the Elysée Napoléon, furnished luxuriously à la française, several imperial palaces, barracks, [and] magnificent hospitals”. Such was the shock that the emperor felt it necessary to write to Alexander to inform him of the city’s destruction: in his letter, he also expressed his incomprehension that the tsar, “with all his principles, heart and integrity, could have authorised such excess unworthy of a great sovereign and a great nation”. Yet despite this, he still failed to understand that this terrible destruction, executed according to Feodor Rostopchin’s wishes, would constitute a turning point in the campaign. The nation’s support for its tsar was solidified, and the defeat of the Grande Armée, by now more concerned with pillaging and looting that fighting the enemy, was hastened.

To read these letters, the realisation that, without adequate clothing or sufficient provisions, a terrible disaster was imminent appears to have come late to the emperor. It was not until 18 November – a month after leaving Moscow – that the emperor admitted to Maret in explicit and almost naive terms the structural difficulties he faced, in contrast to an enemy in total harmony with its surroundings:

“Since the last letter I sent you, our situation has worsened. Freezing conditions and a biting cold of 16 degrees [below zero on the Réaumur scale, about minus 20° C] have killed nearly all our horses, almost 30,000 of them. We have been forced to burn more than 300 artillery pieces and an immense number of transports. […] A few days of rest, some good food and above all horse and artillery equipment will set us right. But the enemy has over us experience of moving in icy conditions, something that gives him an immense advantage in winter. As we struggle to get a transport or artillery piece over the smallest defile without losing 12 or 15 horses and 12 to 15 hours, they – with their skates and specially equipped teams – move them as if there were no ice at all.”

After the crossing of the Berezina, Napoleon’s letters to Maret become more and more direct as he abandons any attempt to mask the extent of the catastrophe at hand. On the morning of 29 November, Napoleon announced that he was cut off from everything: “It has been fifteen days since I last received any news or any dispatch, and I am in the dark on everything”. He went on to add, “The army is large but terribly strung out,” before instructing Maret to assemble plenty of provisions in Vilnius. “Without them,” he warned, “there is no horror that this undisciplined and unruly mob will not visit upon the city.” In the days that followed, his words became more and more alarmist. On 30 November, he estimated that there were 40,000 soldiers “who have driven, by fatigue, cold and want of food, to roaming [the country] as vagabonds and looters” and demanded 100,000 rations of bread, without which – he noted ominously – anarchy and violence would reign in Vilnius. Finally, on 4 December – one of the last letters the emperor sent Maret before crossing back over the Niemen – Napoleon admitted to the army’s utter disarray:

“The army, exhausted and worn out by the miseries it has experienced, is at the brink. It is capable of no more, not even if it were asked to defend Paris.”

Yet this distress was not to last long. Back in Paris on 19 December and seemingly reassured by the country’s morale, the French emperor once more turned his mind to grandiose plans and the raising of new troops. On the day of his arrival, he wrote to Murat:

“I have arrived in Paris. I was extremely satisfied with the Nation’s resolve. They are prepared to make any sort of sacrifice, and I shall be tireless in my work to reorganise the means [at my disposal]. I already have an army of 40,000 men in Berlin and on the Oder.”

There would be no further mention of the mistakes and miscalculations committed during the campaign. The eagle dusted itself down and refused to admit defeat. Like 1812, the year of 1813 would open with the promise of war.

(Tr. H.D.W.)


1 These preparations almost certainly began in 1811, for in a letter addressed to his brother Jerome and dated 27 January 1812, Napoleon writes - whilst continuing to deny his desire for war - "I have had to assemble my armies, train them, and reconstitute my equipment. These preparations have taken a year."
2 The exact date for this letter, written whilst in Vilnius in July, is not given.

Share it